The Library: The Wander Society, by Keri Smith

Review: Marcel Krueger:

I chanced upon the sturdy yellow-and-grey cover of The Wander Society in the too-small English section of a German chain bookstore in a shiny suburban mall. It almost looked like an anachronism in between the Tom Clancy and Cecilia Ahern novels, and as I opened it and found a picture of Fernando Pessoa overlaid with a Ludwig Wittgenstein quote, it intrigued me even more. I also followed the instructions on the back, which talked about a secret underground movement dedicated to conducting research 'on your immediate surroundings' and 'complete a variety of assignments'.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of Keri Smith's Wreck This Journal, that mainstay of countless Urban Outfitter accessory tables around the globe. In my opinion there are better and less forced ways of making a book interactive, to entice creativity. As Tim Parks puts it in his essay 'A Weapon for Readers' where he defends the use of pencils and annotations: “We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us.” And deliberately dropping a notebook in the bath or smearing it with dirt does little for that awareness, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, following Wreck This Journal, I also purchased Smith's How to be an Explorer of the World, a book of assignments meant to stir up interest and exploration of everyday urban surroundings and found it much more to my liking - after all, I love to walk around with my eyes open and some of the exercises in here I was already undertaking, sometimes involuntarily. So I first perceived The Wander Society as a continuation of that idea, albeit one with a new visual approach, less colorful than 'How to be…', with a distinct retro touch to it: all seemingly pasted and glued-together pages and images in brown and black and white. The Wander Society is an approach to the fictional (?) Wander Society, a “nascent and continually growing group with its own aesthetics, values, art, literature, and even its own dialectic language”, as the equally fictional (?) professor J. Tindlebaum states in his introduction. Smith states that all material in the book is based on existing literature found relating to the group. Here's what I found on the first page, where the instructions on the back led me:

The book then goes on and charts the history and philosophy of the group, and also contains assignments and ideas for field research related to deceleration and exploration of what may at first seem dull and uninteresting neighbourhood areas. There is no need to follow all the assignments and activities in here, and some can be somewhat cheesy, for example 'How to Invoke the Inner Wanderer in Any Situation' or 'Create a Temenos', but then there also also many practical activities like 'How to Knit a Wrist Cuff' or 'How to Sew a Neck Pouch', things intended to help group members while exploring and something that might appeal to all those who are more versed in handicraft than I am.

But maybe it is that somewhat simple and playful approach to walking/wandering that I like most about the Wander Society and their ideas and manifestos. While key flaneurs, psychogeographers and deep topographers like Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and Will Self are mentioned throughout the book, there is never any academic approach to these themes. The Wander Society truly is for everyone, and I have the feeling everyone can do with it what they want and as they please. Maybe it is fitting then that the patron saint of the Wander Society is not an academic and critic, but a poet instead: Walt Whitman and his ‘Leaves of Grass’ are among the key works used by the society to explore our direct surroundings and guide them on their wanderings.

I tend to forget that walking and wandering in our capitalist societies around the world often is an activity no longer encouraged or even accepted. As Rebecca Solnit points out in Wanderlust, her history of walking, referring to gyms and treadmills: "In those buildings abandoned because goods are made elsewhere and First World work grows ever more cerebral, people now go for recreation, reversing the inclinations of their factory-worker predecessors to go out - to the outskirts of town or at least out-of-doors - in their free time."  So any book that encourages a reader not only to interact with the physical item ‘book’ but also with their surroundings in a playful and creative way while walking is a good book; of which too few are being published at the moment.  It is good to know that the Wander Society is out there.  

Solvitur ambulando.

The Wander Society by Keri Smith published by Penguin.